puerto rico hurricane debris trash cleanup sandoval pkg_00011601.jpg
puerto rico hurricane debris trash cleanup sandoval pkg_00011601.jpg
Now playing
02:01
Puerto Rico: Concerns grow over debris buildup
Stacks upon stacks of bottled water sit near a runway in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, on September 12, 2018.
PHOTO: Julian Quiñones/CNN
Stacks upon stacks of bottled water sit near a runway in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, on September 12, 2018.
Now playing
02:42
See untouched water bottles in Puerto Rico
SAN ISIDRO, PUERTO RICO - OCTOBER 15:  Uncollected debris stand near damaged homes in an area without electricity on October 15, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is suffering shortages of food and water in many areas and only 15 percent of grid electricity has been restored. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, swept through.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Mario Tama/Getty Images South America/Getty Images
SAN ISIDRO, PUERTO RICO - OCTOBER 15: Uncollected debris stand near damaged homes in an area without electricity on October 15, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is suffering shortages of food and water in many areas and only 15 percent of grid electricity has been restored. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, swept through. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:39
Puerto Rico revises Hurricane Maria death toll
title:  duration: 00:00:00 site:  author:  published:  intervention: yes description: Radio Isla had access to vans that contained water, food, medicine and hundreds of open boxes, many of them with reptile waste and in a state of decomposition. According to sources, the supplies were for the victims of the hurricanes.
PHOTO: Radio Isla
title: duration: 00:00:00 site: author: published: intervention: yes description: Radio Isla had access to vans that contained water, food, medicine and hundreds of open boxes, many of them with reptile waste and in a state of decomposition. According to sources, the supplies were for the victims of the hurricanes.
Now playing
01:24
Supplies sent to Puerto Rico found abandoned
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO - DECEMBER 20:  A resident, whose home remains without electricity, watches as debris is removed on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Barely three months after Hurricane Maria made landfall, approximately one-third of the devastated island is still without electricity and 14 percent lack running water. While the official death toll from the massive storm remains at 64, The New York Times recently reported the actual toll for the storm and its aftermath likely stands at more than 1,000. Puerto Rico's governor has ordered a review and recount as the holiday season approaches.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Mario Tama/Getty Images/File
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO - DECEMBER 20: A resident, whose home remains without electricity, watches as debris is removed on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Barely three months after Hurricane Maria made landfall, approximately one-third of the devastated island is still without electricity and 14 percent lack running water. While the official death toll from the massive storm remains at 64, The New York Times recently reported the actual toll for the storm and its aftermath likely stands at more than 1,000. Puerto Rico's governor has ordered a review and recount as the holiday season approaches. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:47
Possible epidemic in Puerto Rico after Maria hit
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
02:04
Suspected deadly bacteria cases in Puerto Rico (2017)
With hurricane season starting June 1, CNN returns to Puerto Rico to see if the island is ready for another storm. Nine months after Maria, 20,000 homes are still without power- and going into the season, many mayors are worried that even a small storm will plunge them back into darkness and repeat the crisis all over again. We witness desperate Puerto Ricans illegally and dangerously turning on their own power, and press officials for answers on what will change this time around.
PHOTO: CNN
With hurricane season starting June 1, CNN returns to Puerto Rico to see if the island is ready for another storm. Nine months after Maria, 20,000 homes are still without power- and going into the season, many mayors are worried that even a small storm will plunge them back into darkness and repeat the crisis all over again. We witness desperate Puerto Ricans illegally and dangerously turning on their own power, and press officials for answers on what will change this time around.
Now playing
01:05
Questions surround Hurricane Maria death toll
Guest: Mayor Carmen Cruz from San Juan, PR (Facetime) Anderson in Studio 73 / Control 71 (channel 67)   Please record CTL 7100 Switched Please record CTL 7103 Clean Switched Please record CTL 7138 AC ISO Please record CTL 7139 Splits Please record CTL 7140 Big Smalls Please record GFX 905 Cruz ISO
PHOTO: CNN
Guest: Mayor Carmen Cruz from San Juan, PR (Facetime) Anderson in Studio 73 / Control 71 (channel 67) Please record CTL 7100 Switched Please record CTL 7103 Clean Switched Please record CTL 7138 AC ISO Please record CTL 7139 Splits Please record CTL 7140 Big Smalls Please record GFX 905 Cruz ISO
Now playing
01:59
San Juan mayor: Trump showed terrible neglect
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
01:58
CNN anchor presses PR governor on death count
SAN ISIDRO, PUERTO RICO - OCTOBER 05:  Kids bike in an area without grid power or running water about two weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 5, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, swept through.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Mario Tama/Getty Images
SAN ISIDRO, PUERTO RICO - OCTOBER 05: Kids bike in an area without grid power or running water about two weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 5, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, swept through. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Now playing
03:36
Puerto Ricans repair power lines themselves
ricardo rossello
PHOTO: CNN
ricardo rossello
Now playing
02:13
Rossello: Hell to pay if data not available
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO - DECEMBER 20:  A resident, whose home remains without electricity, watches as debris is removed on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Barely three months after Hurricane Maria made landfall, approximately one-third of the devastated island is still without electricity and 14 percent lack running water. While the official death toll from the massive storm remains at 64, The New York Times recently reported the actual toll for the storm and its aftermath likely stands at more than 1,000. Puerto Rico's governor has ordered a review and recount as the holiday season approaches.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Mario Tama/Getty Images/File
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO - DECEMBER 20: A resident, whose home remains without electricity, watches as debris is removed on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Barely three months after Hurricane Maria made landfall, approximately one-third of the devastated island is still without electricity and 14 percent lack running water. While the official death toll from the massive storm remains at 64, The New York Times recently reported the actual toll for the storm and its aftermath likely stands at more than 1,000. Puerto Rico's governor has ordered a review and recount as the holiday season approaches. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:20
Study: Puerto Rico hurricane death toll near 5,000
A Puerto Rico Electric and Power Authority brigade work in a remote off-road location to repair a downed power transmission line in Ponce, Puerto Rico on November 29, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO / TO GO WITH AFP STORY By Leila MACOR, US-PuertoRico-power-weather-reconstruction-hurricane        (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images/FILE
A Puerto Rico Electric and Power Authority brigade work in a remote off-road location to repair a downed power transmission line in Ponce, Puerto Rico on November 29, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO / TO GO WITH AFP STORY By Leila MACOR, US-PuertoRico-power-weather-reconstruction-hurricane (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:20
Puerto Rico suffers island-wide power outage
Blue tarps are still the only roofs for some homes in Corozal.
PHOTO: Leyla Santiago/CNN
Blue tarps are still the only roofs for some homes in Corozal.
Now playing
02:46
Puerto Rico 6 months after Hurricane Maria
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
03:47
Deaths in PR still attributed to Maria
PHOTO: CNN
Now playing
03:45
Hurricane Maria evacuees living in FL motels
(CNN) —  

None of it was supposed to be garbage. Yet, for weeks, heaps of discarded possessions grew to towering heights across Puerto Rico.

In Levittown, a suburb west of San Juan, residents said they started piling trash on the sidewalk the day after Hurricane Maria hit, per instructions from government officials. Waterlogged couches, televisions and refrigerators commingled with toys, clothing and books. The fetid wall of garbage stretched on for blocks, attracting rodents and mosquitoes and raising public health concerns.

Finally, after weeks of waiting, clean-up is underway in Levittown and elsewhere on the island. But at least one local environmentalist is worried about what will happen after the garbage hits the island’s overflowing landfills.

PHOTO: Polo Sandoval/CNN

Experts have warned of potentially devastating impacts from Maria on the island’s precarious infrastructure.

Puerto Rico’s solid waste management system has been on the brink for years. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one year before Hurricane Maria made landfall, most of Puerto Rico’s 29 operating landfills were beyond capacity. And, nearly half had been ordered closed amid concerns over risks posed to nearby soil and groundwater, the agency said.

Following the storm, as the island begins to clean up, the problem is even worse: by some estimates, Puerto Rico is generating several times the amount of garbage it had been sending to the landfill previously.

PHOTO: Polo Sandoval/CNN

The island’s waste management crisis was far from Charlie Dominguez’s mind as he started pulling wet, smelly kitchen cabinets from his home. He threw them on the pile across the street from his home and watched the heap grow day by day. Then a mosquito outbreak came and he started worrying about disease.

By his count it took 34 days for crews to start removing garbage to his great relief. Finally, amid mounting losses, a sign of progress.

“Better late than never,” the 24-year-old lifelong Levittown resident told CNN. “You could almost say it’s like starting fresh.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has hired a local contractor to sift through debris in some of the island’s incorporated areas, including Levittown, to separate hazardous waste from organic material. The debris is bound for landfills on the island and the Environmental Protection Agency will handle disposal of the hazardous waste.

But Juan Rosario worries there is little to no room left in Puerto Rico’s landfills for Maria’s debris.

“We were in a huge mess before Maria. Now the mess is becoming a crisis,” said Rosario, executive director of Amanecer 2025, a local nonprofit that advocates for environmental issues.

PHOTO: Polo Sandoval/CNN

The EPA began its direct involvement to address the landfills in 2002, working with the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board to develop legal agreements. However, the agency has acknowledged that “it is not practical to immediately close most landfills,” and has focused on prioritizing those posing “the greatest threat to the environment and to people’s health.”

Since 2007, the EPA has reached agreements with 12 municipalities and other owners and operators of the landfills to improve operations and put them on schedules for closure. The agency said the orders go above and beyond landfill closures by including composting and recycling programs. But some environmental groups say the orders don’t go far enough and lack meaningful enforcement mechanisms, allowing for the operation of illegal landfills.

They cite the Toa Baja landfill – which receives waste from Levittown – as a prime example. It was under such an agreement to permanently close by 2014. It was amended in 2012 to give operators more time to come up with a new schedule for closure, but an actual date has yet to be decided.

In the meantime, a steady flow of dump trucks carting debris from Maria is making trips up the winding road to the main dump site, where the putrid smell of decay hits you like a nasty slap to the face. Bulldozers shovel the mix of refuse as birds circle above, picking at the mix of refuse.

Meanwhile, the agency continues to issue orders. In July, the agency reached an agreement with the municipality of Santa Isabel to close by July 2019 “to protect the health of nearby communities.”

In April, the agency ordered the municipality of Toa Alta to permanently stop disposing waste by the end of 2017 because it has reached capacity. The agency said one of the most urgent concerns is the landfill’s leachate collection system, which is not functioning. Leachate is a liquid generated by decomposition of waste material. According to the EPA, “The Toa Alta Landfill sits on top of Puerto Rico’s North Coast Limestone aquifer system, a potential source of drinking water. The landfill is adjacent to a number of homes of Toa Alta residents.”

In the meantime, the order requires the municipality and its operators to cover exposed areas of the landfill each day to help control odors and blowing debris and inspect incoming loads of waste to separate out hazardous wastes and prohibited materials.

PHOTO: Polo Sandoval/CNN

The separation of hazardous waste is the first step in current cleanup efforts. Crews in Levittown are working from dawn to dusk to separate toxic waste such as paint cans, household cleaners and televisions from organic material.

For 76-year-old Louis Acosta, the cleanup provides a measure of hope. To him, as long as the rodent-infested trash pile is still standing, it is a reminder to him of what was lost and all that needs to be addressed before his community can rebuild.

“This area was a beautiful place to live,” he said. Then, one month later, “you’re surrounded by trash so, it’s not easy to see that.”

But Rosario worries it will come at a high price for the future.

“We have comprised, in a period of less than one month, probably, the amount of the residues that we were going to produce probably in two or three years in only one month,” he said.

“This is a disaster in the making in the sense that we are going to pay for this not necessarily now, but after.”

CNN’s Polo Sandoval and Linh Tran reported from Puerto Rico, and Emanuella Grinberg wrote this story in Atlanta. CNN’s Raphael Rodriguez contributed to this report.